Lessons In Patriotism / by Suan McCormack

Civil Rights veteran Congressman John Lewis speaks at the Flynn Theater in Burlington, Vermont. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Civil Rights veteran Congressman John Lewis speaks at the Flynn Theater in Burlington, Vermont. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

On October 7, 2019, I was privileged to be part of a reverent, joyful and noisy crowd at Burlington’s Flynn Center. We were gathered to hear from Georgia Congressman and Civil Rights icon John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, with whom Lewis created March, a trilogy of graphic novels about his experience during the civil rights movement. Lewis gave a powerful, first hand accounting of his participation in a historic effort to reshape our country. His experiences at the epicenter of the civil rights movement offer timeless lessons for all of us who long for “a more perfect union.”

Despair is Not An Option

Lewis focused on the gains we have made and on the vast distance we still have to go. He didn’t get stuck in our challenging present moment. Lewis has persisted for the cause of justice through decades.  He has persisted through the messiness, danger, setbacks, and occasional profound victories that often seemed unlikely if not impossible. His words reminded me of the paradoxes of the civil rights movement. Of being a peaceful “troublemaker,” of his experience of feeling complete freedom upon his first of over 40 arrests for his activism.  In our age of instant information, same day delivery, and the twenty-four hour news cycle, it is easy to get tempted into despair about the injustices we see, the painful divisions among us, a world that seems gripped by fear and violence. There is a space between complacency and discouragement that Lewis occupies. This is a place where we can do the steady work needed to make true progress. As Bryan Stevenson says, “hopelessness is the enemy of justice.” To be in the presence of John Lewis was an antidote to despair.

Non-Violent Resistance Can Be A Powerful Force For Change

Lewis’ account of what happened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, was vivid. The intentionally brutal, violent actions of the authorities against people engaged in a peaceful march are hard to hear, despite the passage of over fifty years. How could people who had suffered centuries of brutality and injustice take one more beating, one more humiliation, one more defeat at the hands of those in power? According to Lewis, they had their eye on winning the war for justice, not each battle. The people on that bridge had every reason to fight back. Imagine for a minute if they had. The story would have been about a brawl, perpetuating a deliberately false narrative about black people.  Instead, the movement's commitment to non-violence exposed people’s legitimate claim to their rights as citizens. It also exposed the brutality of white authorities, which shocked the conscience of the nation. There was only the call for justice and a corresponding injustice on display. During that time, non-violent resistance created a stark tableau at the ballot box, the lunch counter, on the bus. Our democracy was falling short of its promise, and African Americans were taking a stand. 

African Americans Have Played A Unique and Essential Role in Our Democracy

Lewis’ story is a testimonial to what writer Nikole Hannah-Jones describes in her recent essay for the 1619 Project. “Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves - black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.”  In our current efforts to form a “more perfect union” we would do well to remember, honor, and learn from the incredible legacy of resistance, and persistence among African Americans who believe in the founding promises of the country.

Young People Will Lead Us Forward

Congressman Lewis reminded us that it was young people leading the way during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and it is young people leading the way forward now. In recent years we have witnessed many young Vermonters taking a stand for justice. Young people are leading movements to address pressing issues such as climate change and gun violence across the country and around the world. There is often a clarity of purpose, a razor sharp commitment to fairness, and a savvy BS meter among young people that is undeniable. I learned that Congressman Lewis asked that the moderator to do his best to choose questions from young people, because young people speak the truth. The moderator complied and shared a hard question from a 10 year old, who asked whether white people would have acted by themselves to challenge the racism of the 1960s and whether she would be alive today without that struggle. Uncomfortable questions like these from our young people can motivate us to continue to work for progress. 

While some young people have important questions to share, other young people have a vision worth following. A highlight of the evening was hearing from Andrew Aydin, who began his work with Congressman Lewis at the age of 24. This young man, a comic book fan, relentlessly suggested that it would be a good idea to turn the story of John Lewis’ life and experiences during the civil rights movement into a graphic novel. This idea was met with resistance and a bit of ridicule among the more experienced members of the Congressman’s staff. However, Aydin’s idea caught Lewis’ attention. The result, many years later is March. This contemporary presentation of events that happened during the middle of the last century is being taught in schools all around the country. Because of Andrew’s vision, a new generation of young leaders has access to the events and lessons of the civil rights movement.

Patriotism is Alive And Well

Looking around at the packed house, I saw students, elders, activists, elected officials, artists. I know many of these people. We may not agree on everything, but we care deeply about our communities, our country, our planet.  We were there, together, to gather strength and inspiration from the example of a true patriot. A person who has made incredible sacrifices to help create the country he believes is possible. His stories exemplified the very definition of patriotism, a “devotion to a vigorous support for one’s country.” 

In the presence of one who has helped the country live up to its founding ideals, we are reminded of what we have been, what we are now, and what we still can become.